Last week, yet again, Philippine Senator, Antonio “Sonny” Fuentes Trillanes IV, made a spectacle of himself on the floor of the Senate, practically provoking a fist fight there and then with fellow senator, Juan Miguel Zubiri whom he’d publically insulted. The fracas was over a PHP50-million bribery-scandal probe urged by his close senate Liberal Party friends, Leila De Lima and Franklin Drilon.
What’s important in this is not so much the issue under debate, but the increasingly aggressive nature of opposition politics in the Philippines and the disproportionate media coverage which a small group of politicians, opposed to President Rodrigo Duterte and his administration, are able to command both at home and abroad. Minority voices with major broadcast power.
Trillanes isn’t short of confidence. In last May’s elections when he ran for the post of vice president as an Independent, he managed to garner just 844,157 votes – 2.1% of the total votes cast. To put that in perspective, Duterte’s tally was 15.97 million (36.8% of the total). In other words, 94.8% more Filipinos wanted Duterte as their president than wanted Trillanes as one of their lawmakers. Basing those statistics on the Philippine population as a whole, then, Antonio Trillanes IV doesn’t speak for a lot of people.
But you wouldn’t know that to listen to him. You would think he’s speaking for the nation; that he’s the chosen voice of the people. Their appointed champion. One of the most voluminous critics of Duterte and his entire administration – leaving aside the fact that he’s undoubtedly one of the most productive senators in filing bills, resolutions and committee reports – his main political project is to work against the present government. But that’s not why he was elected to Congress, even if he thinks it is.
There is zero evidence that his 844,157 voters are anti-Duterte. So when Trillanes attacks the administration – and the president in particular – not only is he not putting forward the views of the nation (82% of which approve of Duterte’s performance to date), there’s nothing to validate that he’s even speaking for his own support base. Trillanes seems to be speaking for Trillanes and, to quite some extent, the Liberal Party with which he was billed (as part of Team PNoy) when he made his successful bid for the Philippine Senate in the 2013 mid-term elections.
But he’s not alone in shouting above his weight. Close-in congressional compadre and Liberal Party gorgon, Leila De Lima – the loudest mouth in the entire bicameral Congress, and the most vehement critic of Duterte – only just sneaked in to gain a Senate seat, coming 12th of 12 candidates in last year’s senatorial race. And she only got that seat after the Commission on Elections declined to address a petition lodged by 13th placegetter, then-Metropolitan Manila Development Authority Chairman, Francis Tolentino, in which he alleged irregularities in the count.
It’s perhaps not surprising then that 2016’s next-to-least popular vice-presidential candidate – Gregorio Honasan II got 83,748 less people to vote for him that Trillanes – and its least-popular successful Senate candidate teamed up to form a noisy tag team. And naturally so; they’re joined at the hip by Liberal Party sinew and share the same loathing for their head of state.
But you’d be forgiven for thinking that these two senators speak for a substantial part of the country. Look at the media coverage they command – De Lima in particular. Not just with the local press but internationally. At times it’s like the De Lima-Trillanes Show.
The Philippine Senate is comprised 24 members and yet the other 22 combined don’t get close to the press exposure De Lima and Trillanes (pictured above) command. Overseas readers might think that De Lima is the leading light in the Senate – a senior figure or elder stateswoman. In fact, she’s been a senator for less than seven months. But there’s a very good reason for that as well – much of the domestic media are in the Liberal Party camp and robustly pursue an anti-Duterte editorial policy. The foreign media, which do the same, are part of the progressive-Left and gatekeepers of US Democratic Party-agenda politics and its European clones.
This, of course, is antagonistic Philippine partisan politics up close and very personal. It has nothing to do with straightening out the country, improving people’s lives and building a vibrant economy. It’s the focused, unswerving application of a political bill of goods that seeks to undermine the government and, ultimately, replace it with one of their own.
In this quest, Senate etiquette is not important to De Lima and Trillanes; collegiality be damned! consensus be damned!. As far as they’re concerned, the Senate floor is their platform from which to attack every part of the current administration. And the uglier those attacks are, it seems, the better.
De Lima’s signature storming from the Senate in a fit of pique and Trillanes, ever ready to reduce the upper chamber of the legislative branch to a bear garden, is all acceptable behaviour – and why not, it gets them headlines, photo coverage and plenty of slots on the news. And the fact that those images are played out around the world isn’t even a consideration; they don’t care a jot for the Senate’s integrity. The country’s image isn’t important; it’s their images accompanied by some spun story of how they’re standing up for what’s right that’s important to them.
Duterte, in a very short space of time, has elevated the stature and the importance of the Philippines on the world stage. He is a head of state whom the leaders of major powers want to work with. Look no further than his whistle-stop tours of the capitals of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, his landmark visit to China (with another planned), his highly successful state visit to Japan, his meetings with Russian President, Vladamir Putin in Peru (and an upcoming trip to Moscow in May), his invitation by newly elected US President Donald Trump to the White House in Washington and his meetings with heads of state in the United Arab Emirates and Australia and elsewhere.
All that has given the Philippines more cred globally than it’s ever known. But highly publicised hissy fits and macho behaviour by elected politicians takes much of the gleam of that. Such antics tarnish the country’s image and gives the impression that knuckles and temper tantrums rather than intellect and wise counsel are the legislature’s preferred means of debate in drawing up the country’s laws. Playing into the worst misconceptions people outside the country have of the Philippines, it is a gross discredit to the rest of the Senate and an insult to the voting public who put their trust in the lawmakers.
Last September, Trillanes filed a motion with the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee to investigate his allegations of Duterte’s involvement with a Davao City death squad which, according to the senator, has notched up more than a thousand killings. Last December, he claimed Duterte had ordered the 5 November assassination of Rolando Espinosa. The Mayor of Albuera, Leyte, was gunned to death in a firefight with a unit of the Philippine National Police’s Criminal Investigation and Detection Group, in his cell at Baybay City Provincial Jail where he was being held on drugs charges. De Lima, of course, supported both claims.
Their goal in these and every other outrageous allegation leveled by this pair against Duterte and members of his team is in a word … impeachment. That’s been their game plan from day one and it will remain their game plan until the end of Duterte’s term in office. And the fact that they make zero contribution to rebuilding the nation and helping its people out of poverty – much less supporting the government’s efforts to do just that – is a public disservice bordering on scandal.
Congress was never designed as an amphitheatre for unarmed combat, any more than it was meant as a stage-setting for an emotional soap opera. It was designed as a forum for the national legislative body to debate and enact laws, as well as to review and, if need be, amend the national budget. All that’s serious work requiring cool heads – not hot ones. Sadly, though, this is unlikely to be the last time we will be writing about the De Lima-Trillanes Show.